For years, bootleg video fanatics have been searching for a phantom videotape of the never-released 1972 Jerry Lewis atrocity “The Day the Clown Cried.” This search has been in vain, as no copy of the film has ever surfaced in the Bootleg Files. But for Lewis lovers and haters, there is a fairly remarkable representation of the funnyman at his unintentional worst: the 1959 version of “The Jazz Singer,” a one-hour production broadcast live over NBC. Jerry Lewis in “The Jazz Singer”? To quote Al Jolson from the original 1927 version, you ain’t seen nothing yet!
The Lewis version runs about an hour, and in many ways it is the funniest thing he ever did. Except for the fact that it was not supposed to be a comedy. Lewis, who always nursed ambitions for both drama and music, played “The Jazz Singer” completely and utterly straight. Being neither a credible actor nor a worthy singer, his spin on “The Jazz Singer” is astonishing to watch. This actually makes the Neil Diamond version look good!
The Lewis version updates the Jolson version by making the Lewis character a struggling nightclub singer who gets a big break when a beautiful TV star spots him in performance and books him on her variety show. Ah, but Lewis has some emotional baggage to carry: his father is an Orthodox Jewish cantor who disapproves of the show biz world and who expects Lewis to follow in his footsteps by singing in the synagogue. On the night of his TV premiere, Lewis’ father falls ill and there is no one to sing the sacred “Kol Nidre” in the synagogue…except Lewis! Will he give up TV for his faith and father?
Plot-wise, “The Jazz Singer” is what is known in Yiddish as “schmaltz.” But this version is decidedly non-kosher, especially when Lewis’ parents are played by (pardon the _expression) ham actors Molly Picon (who pretty much cornered the market in playing little old Jewish women) and Arthur Franz (who actually played the cantor in the 1952 remake with Danny Thomas–yes, the Lebanese-American comic–as the singing son!). Also elbowing in is Alan Reed as Lewis’ uncle. You may not know his name, but you know his voice–he gave life to Fred Flintstone. So imagine Fred Flintstone speaking Yiddish and you have an idea what is going on here.
The TV star, by the way, is the Italian soprano Anna Maria Alberghetti. She never gets to sing one note. But Lewis performs too many songs in his coarse, off-key voice. Listening to Lewis sing, one can’t help but check the corner of the screen to see if Dean Martin is waiting to come out in a gag appearance. Sadly, Dino is nowhere to be found.
So with this version of “The Jazz Singer,” who have about an hour’s worth of Jerry Lewis singing terribly, a Yiddish Fred Flintstone, a beautiful soprano who doesn’t get to sing, and two old overacting parents who go around doing enough “Oy vey” sighing to make the prophet Jeremiah look like a stoic. How can you top it? How about having Jerry Lewis sing the sacred “Kol Nidre” in clown make-up? Yes, in this version Lewis rushes from the TV studio to his ailing father and then to the synagogue without pausing to take off the clown make-up. The final shot of “The Jazz Singer” finds a synagogue full of devout Jews with Lewis, in cantorial robes and yarmulke, made up like Bozo singing in Hebrew…and singing off-key, too! Forget Mel Gibson’s Jesus flick…this is perhaps the single most insulting affront to Jewish audiences ever put on camera.
“The Jazz Singer” was roasted by critics when it first aired and Lewis, who never quite learned to accept or learn from criticism, promptly withdrew the kinescope copies of this live broadcast from circulation. Even the star’s web site (www.jerrylewismuseum.com) will not talk about “The Jazz Singer” (it does detail “The Day the Clown Cried”). A clip from the broadcast was included in a 1982 French documentary, which aroused much curiosity among Lewis trackers about this legendary flop.
Happily, bootleg copies of “The Jazz Singer” have surfaced in recent years. The quality of these videos range from fair to poor. One copy was goofed up in the duplication process and includes two fast-forwarded scenes. A color kinescope also exist and the visual quality is adequate but not pristine. In all versions, the sound is very clear–too clear, considering the racket that goes on.
“The Jazz Singer” did turn up earlier this year as a surprise inclusion in the New York Jewish Museum’s celebration of Jewish-American entertainers. Admittedly, this is nothing to celebrate. Still, it offered a rare chance for a public screening (Lewis vetoed a request for a similar screening by New York’s American Museum of the Moving Image a year earlier). Given that it seems highly doubtful “The Jazz Singer” will arise on DVD or commercial home video, one needs to either wait for the next museum miracle or dig into the Bootleg Files to watch Lewis desecrate Jolson, “Kol Nidre” and the beauty of music in an hour’s span.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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